T Prosocial Effects of Media CHAPTER 4

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Prosocial Effects of Media
hough the term prosocial is often bandied about by the media industry, federal regulators, academics, and advocates, there is not necessarily a shared
definition within or between groups. Most writers suggest that prosocial
media content is somehow socially helpful (such as that which promotes altruism,
friendliness, acceptance of diversity, and cooperation). Others would include content that is more personally helpful (calming fears, engaging in safer sex practices,
eating healthfully). In this chapter, we use the definition provided in one of the first
comprehensive reports of the positive effects of the media written in the 1970s,
titled “Television and Behavior.” The author defines prosocial as that which is
“socially desirable and which in some way benefits other persons or society at large”
(quoted in Lowery & DeFleur, 1995, p. 354).
Any definition of prosocial involves some level of value judgment. Some might
argue that a program that emphasizes “looking out for #1” prepares a child better
for a competitive world than one that instills values of “cooperation.” Despite this
caveat, we examine studies that have explored the benefits of prosocial media in its
traditional sense. Most of the landmark studies were conducted in the 1970s, in
response to increased federal funding to investigate the positive role of television in
children’s lives (this, on the heels of the Surgeon General’s report outlining the negative role of television—particularly the deleterious consequences of TV violence)
(Lowery & DeFleur, 1995). The studies reviewed in this chapter are mainly focused
on television content, though by extension, many of the findings would hold true
for DVD and videotape viewing of the programs. Less clear is the impact of other
electronic media—including computer and video games, Internet social Web sites
(including networking sites), music, or magazines.
Many studies have found that children’s emotional and social skills are linked to
their early academic standing (e.g., Wentzel & Asher, 1995). Children who have difficulty paying attention in class, getting along with their peers, and controlling their
own negative emotions of anger and distress do less well in school (Arnold et al.,
1999; McLelland, Morrison, & Holmes, 2000). What’s more, longitudinal studies
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suggest that this link may be causal: “For many children, academic achievement in
their first few years of schooling appears to be built on a firm foundation of
children’s emotional and social skills” (Raver, 2002, p. 3). Specifically, research on
early schooling suggests that the relationships that children build with peers and
teachers are (a) based on children’s ability to regulate emotions in prosocial versus
antisocial ways, and (b) a “source of provisions” that either help or hurt children’s
chances of doing well, academically, in school (Ladd, Birch, & Buhs, 1999, p. 1375).
Developmental psychologists believe that children have a set of “emotional competencies” that determine how they think about and handle their own and others’
emotions (Saarni, 1990). For example, a child’s ability to recognize and label
different emotions gives him or her powerful social tools. Children’s emotional
styles are thought to be influenced not only by their temperament but also by their
environments. Certainly, parents’ uses of warmth, control, and harshness in the
home matter (see Chapter 12). Media may matter too. As we shall see in a moment,
media have been shown to be effective at developing skills such as altruism and
cooperation in young viewers.
Prosocial Media for Children
In the early days of television, the limited offerings of the networks featured many
“family-friendly” prosocial programs such as Lassie, Captain Kangaroo, and The
Waltons. Through the 1970s and early 1980s, content analyses revealed that
children’s favorite programs often featured portrayals of empathy, altruism, and an
exploration of feelings (Palmer, 1988). Networks soon discovered, however, that
more money could be made on so-called program-length commercials—cartoons
that were mainly vehicles for selling toys such as action figures (Kunkel, 1988).
As a consequence, prosocial television declined through the 1980s and mid-1990s
(Calvert & Kotler, 2003). The Children’s Television Act of 1990 aimed to reverse
that trend, but it really wasn’t until the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) processing guideline went into effect—explicitly stating a minimum
requirement of 3 hours per week of educational television—that the landscape of
children’s television began to include more prosocial television. Today, more than
three quarters of the commercial broadcasters’ educational offerings are “prosocial” shows (Jordan, 2004).
How Do Prosocial Media Affect Youth?
Researchers who study children’s prosocial learning from media typically work
under the assumption that characters who behave kindly, cooperatively, responsibly, and altruistically are providing models that children can learn from and subsequently imitate. Much of this research is grounded in Bandura’s social cognitive
theory, which originally explored how televised aggression might be imitated under
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certain conditions (see Chapter 5), but has also looked at prosocial behavior that
might result from media exposure. Generally speaking, the mechanism goes like
this: Children observe a character behave in a positive manner. That behavior is
more likely to be imitated if the character (a) is realistic, (b) is similar to the child
(for example, in age or gender), (c) receives positive reinforcement, and (d) carries
out an action that is imitable by the child (Thomas, 2005).
Prosocial content may also be providing children with skills for dealing with
their emotions and managing their moods. As noted at the beginning of the chapter, children are born with temperament but look to their environments to learn
emotional competencies—for example, ways to feel better about themselves or get
through a bad day. Sesame Street has, in its three decades on the air, taught children
about emotional coping in its curricular goals. It has addressed the scariness of
hurricanes, the jealousy that arrives with a new sibling, and even the uncertainty
that came after the 2001 terrorist attacks. However, we know very little about the
efficacy of these storylines. Similarly, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood produced many
episodes for children on topics that scared them or made them uncomfortable.
(Indeed, there is a large body of research on children’s management of their fright
reactions to media. See, for example, Cantor, 2001.)
A third potential mechanism underlying the relationship between media content and prosocial behavior may be that prosocial content offers children “scripts”
for dealing with unfamiliar situations. According to schema or script theory, a
schema is an organized structure of knowledge about a topic or event that is stored
in memory and helps a person assimilate new information (Mandler, 1984).
Schema theory suggests that people possess schemas for emotions, which include
information about facial expressions, the cause of feelings, and the appropriate
ways of expressing feelings. Children use schemas to help them interpret what they
encounter in the media. In turn, media content can contribute to a child’s schemas.
Cultivation theory, described in Chapter 5, has found that, over time, heavy TV
viewers tend to adopt beliefs about the world that are consistent with television’s
portrayal of the world. In other words, children who watch a lot of TV featuring
crime or hospitals may come to see the world as a mean and scary place (Gerbner,
Gross, Signorielli, & Morgan, 1986).
The Research Evidence
Social learning theory, emotional competency theory, and schema theory might
all be used to understand children’s development of empathy, or the ability of
children to understand and relate to another’s feelings by taking his or her perspective. Many would argue that the ability of humans to empathize with others is both
hardwired and learned. Developmental psychologists who follow the Piagetian tradition would argue that it is not until children are 6 or 7 years old that they are
“sociocentric” enough to understand that not everyone sees the world
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or events as they do. In one famous experiment, children were put in front of a
constructed three-dimensional mountain with different objects placed on it. Piaget
asked the child to choose from four pictures which view the experimenter would
see (the experimenter was standing on the opposite side of the mountain). Younger
children selected the picture of the view that they themselves saw (Thomas, 2005).
From this experiment and others, Piaget argued that children have difficulty understanding others’ perspectives, including understanding how they might feel. By the
time children reach school age, they become more tuned into the feelings and needs
of others.
Research suggests that child audiences can recognize the feelings of media characters, though it appears that younger children are less likely to experience the
character’s feelings (that is, empathize with them) than older children. In one
study, 3- to 5-year-olds and 9- to 11-year-olds watched a scary movie clip. For one
clip, a threatening “stimulus” was shown. For the other, a character’s fear in
response to the threatening stimulus was shown. Older children were more frightened and physiologically aroused than the younger children, though all children
recognized the character as frightened (Wilson & Cantor, 1985).
Calvert and Kotler (2003) examined a more recent crop of prosocial programs
for elementary school-age youth airing on commercial broadcast, cable, and public
television. Their two-pronged study involved second to sixth graders in both a naturalistic reporting methodology (in which children logged onto a Web site and
reported on what they were watching and what they learned) as well as an experimental methodology (in which children were shown programs in the classroom and
asked about them afterwards). Their research suggests that school-age children learn
from prosocial programs even more so than from traditional, school-related educational shows. Moreover, much of what the children seemed to be learning is how to
identify the emotions of characters and apply what they learn to their own lives. As
this sixth-grade girl in the experimental condition wrote about the program Anatole,
“This program was about a little mouse who tried her hardest in singing but just
couldn’t do it. The mouse gave up and ripped her opera notes up because of her
frustration. When her dad (Papa) met an Opera singer named Renee, he knew that
if his daughter heard her singing, she would have kept her confidence. And she did.
She learned that just because you are not good at something doesn’t mean you have
to give up. And that is the lesson that I will keep in mind when I get frustrated with
something I am not good at” (quoted in Calvert & Kotler, 2003, p. 316).
One of the first studies of the impact of prosocial television came with the
program Lassie, which ran from 1954 to 1974 on commercial broadcast TV. The
show featured an extraordinary collie, who was devoted to his family and, in particular, the boy owner (Jeff). Because of his devotion and intelligence, Lassie often
helped them out of dangerous situations. In the Sprafkin, Liebert, and Poulos
(1975) experiment, first-grade children saw one of three TV shows. In one condition, they saw a prosocial episode of Lassie in which Jeff rescues a puppy. In the
second, they viewed a “neutral” episode of Jeff trying to avoid taking violin lessons.
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In the third, the children watched a “competitive” episode of the Brady Bunch. After
viewing the television program, children were told to play a game to win points and
prizes. They were also told that if they needed assistance, they could press a “help”
button, though that would mean they would need to stop playing the game and
presumably be less likely to win a prize. Children could hear dogs barking with
increasing intensity and distress through the experimental period (the barking was,
of course, prerecorded). Children who saw the prosocial episode of Lassie condition
were nearly twice as likely to seek help as children in the neutral condition. Children
in the competitive condition were the least likely to seek help.
Social Interaction
In a 1979 study of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Friedrich-Cofer, Huston-Stein,
Kipnis, Susman, and Clewett explored the effects of daily exposure to different
kinds of television over a 2-month period on preschool children’s social interactions with one another. All of the children were enrolled in Head Start programs.
In one classroom, children watched Mister Rogers, and teachers were trained and
relevant play material was provided. In a second classroom, children watched
Mister Rogers, but teachers had no training. Relevant play material was provided. In
the third, children viewed Mister Rogers, but there was neither teacher training nor
program-related play material. In the final condition, children watched “neutral”
films, with irrelevant play material in the classroom. Researchers observed
children’s natural social behaviors in the classroom and on the playground before
Figure 4.1
PBS’ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
SOURCE: ©2001 Family Communications, Inc. and PBS.
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and after the 2 months’ worth of viewing. They found that positive interactions
with peers increased the most in the condition where children had exposure to
prosocial programming, teachers were trained, and relevant play material was provided. Prosocial television alone, however, led to few differences in children’s
behavior, at least in this early study.
A second program that has been extensively studied is Barney & Friends. This
program, which features a big purple dinosaur and emphasizes kindness and good
manners, has been found to have a positive effect on children from diverse regions
in the United States. Similar to the Mister Rogers study described above, day care
centers were assigned to either a viewing or a viewing plus lessons condition or a
no-viewing control group. Even without the accompanying lessons, children who
viewed Barney were rated as more civil and having better manners.
Acceptance of Others/Acceptance of Diversity
A major goal of the program Sesame Street has been to highlight the diversity of
American life and to model racial harmony. Program characters are African
Americans, Latino Americans, White Americans, American Indians, and Asian
Americans. Even its Muppets are different colors! In 1989, in response to increasing racial unrest, the producers and researchers at Sesame Workshop (the nonprofit
production company that makes the program) designed a curriculum to encourage friendship among people of different races and cultures. Preschool viewers
were encouraged to perceive people who look different from themselves as possible
friends and to bring a child who has been rejected because of physical and/or cultural differences into the group. Truglio, Lovelace, Segui, and Schneider (2001)
write that initially, there was some doubt as to whether race relations was truly an
issue for preschoolers. However, a review of the literature, along with meetings with
experts, revealed that preschoolers were aware of racial differences. Their formative
research suggested that ethnic minority children felt less good about themselves
and that White children were more likely to segregate African American children in
an imaginary neighborhood they were asked to create. However, most of the
children were open to the idea of being friends with children of different races.
One very interesting study analyzed two segments for Sesame Street that were
created to address racial harmony and interaction. In one, “Visiting Ieshia,” a White
girl visits an African American girl in her home. The other, “Play Date,” shows a
similar family visit with an African American boy in his home and his White friend.
Researchers at Sesame Workshop found that children liked the segments and identified with and remembered them. Most of the children who viewed the episodes
stated that the visiting White child felt positive about being at Ieshia’s home (70%)
and Jamal’s home (58%). However, less than one half of the children who viewed
“Play Date” felt that the African American mother in the film (48%) and the White
mother of the visiting boy (39%) felt happy about the visit. Why? Preschoolers perceived their own mothers as not feeling positively about other-race friendships,
even after viewing friendly and inviting images of parents in “Play Date.” From
these findings, the researchers recommended that in future segments, mothers and
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Figure 4.2
PBS’ Sesame Street
SOURCE: ©2005 Sesame Workshop.
fathers needed to have a more prominent role in expressing support about the child
character’s friendships with children of different races before, during, and after
these visits. They also suggested that the segments show the parents of the different-race children interacting and expressing the positive value of making good
friends (Truglio et al., 2001).
The Limitations of Research on
Prosocial Content for Children
It is unfortunate that so few studies have investigated the potential benefits of
prosocial programming for children, particularly when there are so many programs
now being offered by commercial broadcasters to satisfy the 3-hour rule. As Mares
and Woodard (2001) point out, there are still many unanswered questions about
how best to design prosocial content for children. First, does children’s exposure to
specific prosocial models (such as donating money) translate into more “general
kindness” or “goodness”? They argue that such a link has been found in exposure
to antisocial models (with, of course, the opposite effect) and that despite the fact
that the research could be carried out fairly easily, it never has. The popular series
American Idol, for example, televised a double episode called “Idol Gives Back” in
which the judges spotlighted the ravages of poverty, including the desperate plight
of AIDS-afflicted mothers and children in Africa. By modeling charitable behavior
(one of the episode’s hosts, Ellen DeGeneres, donated $100,000 and the program’s
host, Ryan Seacrest, went to Africa and cared for dying women and children), they
raised a total of $60 million. Children watching the program asked their parents to
give and pledged their own allowances. But is this generosity fleeting, or have
children’s beliefs and behaviors been affected in the longer term?
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There is also a question about what kind of prosocial portrayal is most effective
for different ages. For example, Mares and Woodard (2001) argue that “the combination of aggression and a prosocial theme is particularly pernicious. That is,
showing violence and mayhem in the cause of social justice or followed by a rapid
conclusion in which the villains are punished for their aggression may be more
deleterious to children’s prosocial interactions than showing violence unadulterated by any prosocial theme” (p. 195). One study by Krcmar and Valkenberg (1999)
found that 6- to 12-year-olds could easily reason that “unjustified violence” is
wrong in an abstract, hypothetical situation. However, those children who were
heavy viewers of the fantasy violence program Power Rangers were more likely to
judge “justified” aggression in the hypothetical scenarios as morally correct, while
those who seldom watched the program did not. One might argue that children
who see the world in this way (that is, that justified violence is morally right) are
drawn to superhero-type shows such as Power Rangers. Krcmar and Curtis (2003)
conducted an experiment in which 5- to 14-year-olds were randomly assigned to
one of three conditions: One watched an action cartoon that featured characters
arguing and eventually engaging in violence, another watched a similar clip involving an argument but the characters walked away instead of fighting, and a control
group did not watch television. Afterward, the subjects listened to and judged four
hypothetical stories involving violence. Children who had watched the violent
program were subsequently more likely than those in the control group to judge
the violence as morally acceptable. They also exhibited less sophisticated moral reasoning in their responses (for example, they relied on punishment as rationale—
“don’t hit or you’ll get in trouble”).
Not only is much of children’s superhero programming portrayed with conflicting pro- and antisocial messages, so too is the adult programming that is popular
with young audiences. The Fox program 24 has been roundly criticized for having
its hero, Jack Bauer, use torture against his enemies (including his bad-guy brother)
to save the world from disaster (Moritz, 2007). Similarly, if one aim is to have
children imitate constructive, prosocial behavior, what is the best way to promote
that? Should the reward be intrinsic or extrinsic? Should children be shown how to
carry this behavior over into their own lives? The program Captain Planet highlighted the ecological problems facing the world—problems that were solved by
superheroes called “planeteers.” At the end of the program, however, children were
shown exactly what they could do in their own homes and communities to be a
“planeteer” too. Behaviors included recycling newspapers, making birdhouses, and
picking up litter.
One of the few studies to examine the impact of production values on the takeaway value of a prosocial program tracked elementary school children’s reaction to
a popular family sitcom, Full House, in which a young character was trying to cope
with anxiety about earthquakes or taking a fall while trying to learn how to ride a
bicycle. In addition, half of the children were exposed to a humorous subplot that
was interspersed with the main plot (the other half saw no subplot). The study
revealed that while the subplot reduced the younger children’s (5- to 7-year-olds)
comprehension of the emotional event in the storyline, it had no impact on older
children’s comprehension. Thus, it is clear that research needs to account for the
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developmental differences of audiences when examining the potential benefits of
prosocial content. As described earlier, Georgetown researchers Calvert and Kotler
(2003) argued that at least for school-age children, prosocial program content is
even more “educational” than academic-oriented shows that feature science, literature, or math. As Jordan (2003) points out, however, it is difficult to know whether
the children remember the lessons better because they have been ingrained in them
since they were toddlers (share, be nice, etc.) or whether it is because the narrative
structure is more entertaining and engaging.
Prosocial Media for Adolescents
The great majority of research on prosocial effects of media has involved
children, especially very young children (Hogan & Strasburger, 2008). Only a handful of studies and experiments have specifically examined the possibility of prosocial effects of media on adolescents (Mares & Woodard, 2001, 2005). A recent
meta-analysis of 35 prosocial studies found that the impact of prosocial content
seems to peak at age 7 and fall off rapidly after that (Mares & Woodard, 2005), so
that teenagers may be relatively “immune” to such influences or simply too egocentric to be affected. One of the earliest and classic experiments involved assigning 60
young people, ages 9, 13, and 16, to view one of two versions of The Mod Squad. In
the violent version, a police captain who is framed for bribery gets even with the
villain. In the prosocial version, everything is worked out through negotiation. The
subjects were then placed in front of a “help/hurt” machine in a mock experimental situation. Those who had viewed the prosocial version spent more time pressing the help button and less time pressing the hurt button (Collins & Getz, 1976).
In an intriguing use of prosocial TV, Elias (1983) used a 5-week series of 10 prosocial videos about dealing with teasing, bullying, and peer pressure to help treat a
group of 109 boys, ages 7 to 15 years, who had serious emotional disturbances.
Compared with control subjects, the boys were rated as less isolated and less troubled, and this effect lasted as long as 2 months after the videos were seen. Media
popular with teens can also be used to teach them about important subjects. For
example, Singer and Singer (1994) developed and tested an effective adolescent
health education mini-curriculum using five episodes of Degrassi Junior High with
teens and preteens in Grades 5 to 8.
Content analyses have also found that prosocial content is relatively rare. An
analysis of the top 20 shows for children and teens ages 2 to 17 found that only two
contained themes of altruism, antiviolence, or friendliness in the episodes analyzed
(Mares & Woodard, 2005). An older analysis of the most popular shows among
fourth, sixth, and eighth graders found that there were as many antisocial acts as
prosocial acts depicted (Greenberg, Atkin, Edison, & Korzenny, 1980). However, the
most recent analysis of 2,227 programs on 18 different channels found that 73% of
the programs featured altruistic acts, with a rate of 2.92 incidents per hour (Smith
et al., 2006).
Both video games and the Internet have been used recently and creatively to try to
reach teens and young adults (Baranowski, Buday, Thompson, & Baranowski, 2008).
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Recently, a 16-week online intervention succeeded in producing weight loss and a
reduction in binge eating for a small group of adolescents (Jones et al., 2008). A new
video game titled Re-Mission (HopeLab, Palo Alto, CA) has been developed for cancer patients and features a “nanobot” named Roxxi, an attractive brunette who travels through the body blasting away at cancer cells. In a study of 375 cancer patients,
ages 13 to 29 years, at 34 different medical centers, those who played the game were
more compliant with chemotherapy and antibiotic treatments (Beale, Kato, MarinBowling, Guthrie, & Cole, 2007). Dance Dance Revolution is a popular video game
that encourages exercise at home and can double energy expenditure (LanninghamFoster et al., 2006). However, a 6-month follow-up of 30 children who used it at least
150 minutes a week found no reduction in body mass index (Madsen, Yen, Wlasiuk,
Newman, & Lustig, 2007). Another new video game, Body Mechanics, tries to teach
children to avoid becoming obese by allying themselves with a team of superheroes
to battle villains such as Col Estorol and Betes II (Ellis, 2007). TV has also been used
successfully to distract children having blood drawn (Bellieni et al., 2006). Finally, a
computer-delivered HIV/AIDS program resulted in increased condom use in a recent
randomized trial with 157 college students (Kiene & Barta, 2006).
National and International Prosocial Efforts
Evidence is increasing that well-conceived health campaigns involving mass
media can have a demonstrable impact (Noar, 2006). One of the earliest prosocial experiments was conducted in Mexico by Miguel Sabido. His telenovela,
Acompaname (Accompany Me), featured a young woman with two children who
decided that she didn’t want any more pregnancies and therefore needed contraception. The show was immensely popular, and sales of contraceptives increased
23% in the first year the show aired, compared with 7% the year before the show
began (Brink, 2006). Subsequently, the use of soap operas to convey public health
messages spread to India, China, and Africa, where radio characters would discuss
the problems of dealing with the risk of AIDS (Singhal & Rogers, 1999). In
Zambia, a media campaign to reduce the risk of HIV resulted in a doubling of
condom use among those teenagers who viewed at least three TV ads from the
campaign (Underwood, Hachonda, Serlemitsos, & Bharath-Kumar, 2006). In
2006, the African Broadcast Media Partnership Against HIV/AIDS began a 3- to
5-year campaign involving a series of public service announcements (PSAs) on
radio and TV in 25 African countries (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006). The goal
of the “An HIV-Free Generation. . . . It Begins With You” campaign is to educate
people in Africa about what they can do to stop the spread of HIV. And in China,
students have been successfully taught sex education via the Internet (Lou, Zhao,
Gao, & Shah, 2006).
In the United States, the Kaiser Family Foundation began partnering with MTV
in 1997 and has produced a total of 62 different PSAs and 19 full-length shows that
deal with HIV/AIDS (Rideout, 2003). In 2003, Kaiser joined with Viacom to get
HIV/AIDS storylines incorporated into shows such as Becker, Touched by an Angel,
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and Queer as Folk (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2004). A RAND study of 506 regular
viewers of the hit sitcom Friends found that more than one fourth could recall
seeing one particular episode in which Rachel became pregnant despite the use of
condoms. Of those, 40% watched the episode with an adult, and 10% talked with
an adult about condom use as a direct result of the show (Collins, Elliott, Berry,
Kanouse, & Hunter, 2003). Similarly, a Kaiser survey of more than five hundred 15to 17-year-olds found that one third had a conversation with a parent about a sexual matter because of something they saw on television (Figure 4.3). In the same
survey, 60% of teens said that they learned how to say no to sex by seeing something on TV, and nearly half said that TV helped them talk to a partner about safe
sex (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2002). Two Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) surveys in the past 7 years have found that half of regular viewers of daytime soap operas in the United States say that they have learned important health information, and one fourth of prime-time viewers say that TV is one
of their top three sources of health information (Brink, 2006). And an innovative
campaign in North Carolina used TV and radio PSAs and billboards to encourage
parents to talk to their teenagers about sex. “Talk to your kids about sex. Everyone
else is,” was the primary message, and a subsequent survey of 1,132 parents found
that the campaign had indeed been effective (DuRant, Wolfson, LaFrance,
Have you ever had a conversation with one of your parents
about a sexual issue because of something you saw on TV?
Figure 4.3
SOURCE: Kaiser Family Foundation (2002). This information was reprinted with permission from
the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. The Kaiser Family Foundation, based in Menlo Park,
California, is a nonprofit, private operating foundation focusing on the major health care issues
facing the nation and is not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries.
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Balkrishnan, & Altman, 2006). Both the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and
Unplanned Pregnancy and Advocates for Youth have run similar campaigns (see
Figure 4.4). In San Francisco, the Department of Public Health has become the first
in the country to begin sending safer sex text messages to young people who
request them (Allday, 2006).
One of the most important noncontroversial possibilities for improving the quality of children’s media experiences would be to create a uniform rating system for
all media. This would end the current confusion of the “alphabet soup” of different
ratings for different media and would yield a system that is far more “user-friendly”
and content based (Gentile, Humphrey, & Walsh, 2005; Greenberg & RampoldiHnilo, 2001). Every available study shows that parents and public health organizations are overwhelmingly in favor of a content-based ratings system,
not an age-based one (Cantor, 1998a, 1998b; Gentile et al., 2005; Greenberg
Figure 4.4
Advocates for Youth Ad
SOURCE: Advocates for Youth (www. advocatesforyouth.org). Reprinted with permission.
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& Rampoldi-Hnilo, 2001; Hogan, 2001). Yet, to date, every media industry has
resisted such a change.
The first ratings system, of movies, was created in 1968 as a joint venture
between the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the National
Association of Theatre Owners (see Figure 4.5). Interestingly, it quickly followed
two Supreme Court decisions that upheld the power of states to regulate children’s
access to media otherwise protected by the First Amendment (Ginsberg v. New
York, 1968; Interstate Circuit v. Dallas, 1968). Although the system is voluntary,
most films are rated. Ninety percent of parents are aware of the ratings system, and
more than half approve of it (Federman, 1996). However, a significant percentage
of parents disagree with the ratings for particular movies (Walsh & Gentile, 2001),
and a recent survey of more than 1,000 parents found that only 53% find the ratings “very” useful (see Figures 4.6 and 4.7) (Rideout, 2007). The current movie
ratings are as follows (see also Figure 4.8) (Federman, 1996; FTC, 2000):
Figure 4.5
MPAA Movie Ratings
SOURCE: From Kaiser Family Foundation (2000b). Reprinted with permission.
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54% 53%
Movie ratings Video game
Figure 4.6
TV ratings
Percentage of Parents Who Say They Have Ever Used Movie Ratings,
Video Game Ratings, and Music Advisories
SOURCE: Rideout (2007). Used with permission.
55% 53%
Video games
Figure 4.7
Percentage of Parents Who Have Used Each Rating or Advisory
System and Found Them “Very” Useful
SOURCE: Rideout (2007). Used with permission.
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G: General audiences—all ages admitted.
• Signifies that the film contains nothing that most parents
will consider offensive, even for their youngest children. No
nudity, sex scenes, or scenes depicting drug use.
• Recent examples: Finding Nemo, Wallace & Gromit—The
Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Garfield, Cars, Ratatouille.
PG: Parental guidance suggested—some material may not
be suitable for children.
• May contain some material that parents might not like
their young children exposed to, but explicit sex scenes or scenes
of drug use are absent. However, nudity may be briefly seen, and
horror and violence may be present at “moderate levels.”
• Recent examples: The Chronicles of Narnia, Charlie and
the Chocolate Factory, Nanny McPhee, Dreamer: Inspired by a
True Story, Alvin and the Chipmunks.
PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned—some material may be
inappropriate for children under 13.
Figure 4.8
SOURCE: Copyright Sidney
Reprinted with permission.
• “Rough or persistent violence” is absent, as is sexually oriented nudity. There
may be some scenes of drug use but one use (only) of a common sexually derived
• Recent examples: Mission Impossible 3, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,
Star Wars III—The Revenge of the Sith, Flags of Our Fathers, Pirates of the Caribbean:
Dead Man’s Chest, I Am Legend, Juno.
R: Restricted, under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
• May contain some adult material. May contain “hard” language, “tough violence,” sex or nudity, or drug use. Consequently, parents are urged to learn more
about the film before taking their children to see it.
• Recent examples: Saw III, The Wedding Crashers, Snakes on a Plane, Crash,
Brokeback Mountain, Hostel: Part II, Knocked-Up, Super-Bad, American Gangster.
NC-17: No one under 17 admitted.
• May contain material that the ratings board feels is “patently adult,” and therefore children 17 and younger should not be viewing it. May contain explicit sex
scenes, considerable sexually oriented language, and/or scenes of excessive violence.
• Recent examples: Where the Truth Lies; This Film Is Not Yet Rated; Lust,
Caution. (Older examples: Showgirls, Kids)
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There are several problems with the MPAA system. Initially, the ratings were
evaluative only, not descriptive (see Table 4.1). Parents would be given only the
“PG” or “PG-13” symbol without being told exactly what content was problematic
(Harris, 2007).
For certain parents, offensive language could be more of an issue than scenes
with brief nudity, for example. Recently, however, and with very little public fanfare, the MPAA added descriptive information below the symbols (e.g., the 2007
film Hostel: Part II is rated R for “sadistic scenes of torture and bloody violence, terror, nudity, sexual content, language, and some drug content”). But the descriptions do not always accompany the rating, nor is the print always large enough to
be deciphered by the average parent with average eyesight.
Sometimes, decisions by the ratings board defy explanation. The movie Billy
Elliot was a fine film for children and teenagers, except for repeated use of the “f ”
word. Despite the fact that the word was spoken in a northern English accent so
thick that it was barely decipherable, the film received an R rating, putting it out of
reach of many teens who would have enjoyed seeing it. Hannibal, a gory sequel to
Silence of the Lambs, was rated R, not NC-17. As critic Roger Ebert noted in his
review, “If it proves nothing else, it proves that if a man cutting off his face and
feeding it to the dogs doesn’t get the NC-17 rating for violence, nothing ever will”
(Ebert, 2001, p. 4). Similarly, Hostel: Part II shows grisly scenes of blood and torture, “which means it’s perfectly okay to take a 5-year-old to see it if you can’t get a
sitter” (Harris, 2007, p. 76). The board is also notoriously susceptible to negotiation
with the industry (Dick, 2006). Thus, the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
received an R rating only after it was rated five times as NC-17. “God’s the biggest
bitch of them all” qualified the film for an R rating, whereas “God f—ing me up the
a—” would have merited an NC-17 (Hochman, 1999). Even the makers of the film
were surprised that their film escaped with just an R rating (Hochman, 1999).
Many observers have felt that the MPAA rates more harshly for sex than for violence, which is the exact reverse of what European countries do (see Figure 4.9)
(Federman, 1996). Any depiction of sexual activity is likely to earn a picture an R
Table 4.1
Examples of Descriptive and Evaluative Ratings
Contains some violence
Parental discretion advised
Nudity/sex level 3
Teen: ages 13+
Violence: blood and gore
R: restricted
Language: mild expletives
Adults only
Contains extreme violence
Mature: ages 17+
BN: brief nudity
PG: parental guidance
SOURCE: Federman (1996). Reprinted with permission.
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Prosocial Effects of Media——133
rating, whereas a PG-13 movie can contain an appreciable amount of violence.
Films that were extremely violent, such as Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction,
received R ratings, whereas Showgirls, which had graphic sexuality and some nudity
but only brief violence, received an NC-17 rating (Federman, 1996). Even former
members of the MPAA ratings board have serious problems with how this is
decided (Waxman, 2001a).
Other problems with the MPAA system are that, through the years, the industry has
tolerated significant drug and violent content in G- and PG-rated movies, despite its
own guidelines (see Figure 4.10) (Associated Press, 2005). Of all the animated feature
films produced in the United States between 1937 and 1999, 100% contained violence,
and the portrayal of intentional violence increased during this 60-year period (Yokota
& Thompson, 2000). Two studies of G-rated children’s films released between 1937
and 1997 have found that nearly half displayed at least one scene of tobacco or alcohol
use (Goldstein, Sobel, & Newman, 1999; Thompson & Yokota, 2001).
Figure 4.9
SOURCE: Reprinted with permission from King Features.
Figure 4.10
SOURCE: Reprinted with special permission of King Features Syndicate.
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Page 134
Another significant problem is what has been labeled “ratings creep.” Between
1992 and 2003, for example, the PG rating seemed to be turning into a G rating, the
PG-13 rating into a PG rating, and the R rating into a PG-13 rating for many films
(Thompson & Yokota, 2004). In particular, the amount of violence (PG and PG-13
films), sex (PG, PG-13, and R films), and profanity (PG-13 and R films) seems to
be ratcheted up in the past decade. As always, the MPAA rates more severely for sex
or nudity than it does for violence, despite what the research says.
Several studies have noticed that the age-based ratings simply encourage
children, especially boys, to seek “older” fare (see Figure 4.11) (Cantor, 1998b).
When ratings are based on age rather than content, the “forbidden fruit theory”
seems to become operational (Bushman & Stack, 1996).
There is also the problem of “enforcing” the ratings system. Half of movie theater operators surveyed confessed that they admit teens younger than 17 to R-rated
movies without an accompanying parent or guardian (FTC, 2000). Even if theater
owners were more conscientious, today’s multiplex theaters allow children and
teens to pay for a PG movie and switch to an R movie with minimal chances of
being caught. There is some evidence that this trend may be changing, however. A
2001 study by an industry research firm found that films may lose as much as 40%
of their potential opening-weekend earnings if they are rated R (Waxman, 2001b).
Researchers who polled 1,500 people per week found that increasingly teens were
being turned away at R-rated movies (Waxman, 2001b). In addition, of the top 20
films in 2002, 13 were rated PG-13 and none were R rated (Weinraub, 2003).
The television industry has lagged far behind the motion picture industry in
developing a ratings system. Nearly 30 years after the MPAA system was introduced, the networks began rating their shows but only after considerable pressure
from parents, advocacy groups, and the federal government (Broder, 1997; Hogan,
“Like to see it” 4
Level of interest
“Don’t want to see it” 2
Figure 4.11
Effect of MPAA Ratings on Older Children’s Interest in a Movie
SOURCE: Cantor (1998b, p. 64). Used with permission.
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Prosocial Effects of Media——135
2001). In fact, it took congressional legislation to accomplish it.
In 1996, the Telecommunications Act mandated that new television sets be manufactured with a V-chip and that television
programs be rated so that the chip could be programmed
accordingly (see Figure 4.12). Like the MPAA ratings, the TV
ratings system also has many flaws (see Figure 4.13). News and
sports programs are not rated. Initial age-based ratings had to be
supplemented with content descriptors (see Table 4.2). Many
public health groups suggested that the system should have been
modeled after the premium cable channels’ practice of indicating the level of sex, violence, and coarse language in each
program (Cantor, 1998b; Mediascope, 2000).
However, even after descriptors were added, studies show
that the system is still not working properly. For several years,
NBC refused to use the content descriptors in its ratings. The
current categories are not specific enough regarding content,
and the contextual impact of violent or sexual references is completely ignored. For example, certain content becomes lost to the
highest rating: A TV-MA program with an “S” for sexual content
may contain violence at a TV-14 level but is not given a “V” for
violent content. In addition, parents may be tempted to place
inappropriate faith in the rating “FV” for fantasy violence, even
though research shows that this represents some of the most
potentially detrimental programming for young children
(Cantor, 1998a; Federman, 1998). In fact, in a recent study of
more than 1,000 parents, only 11% knew what “FV” stands for,
Figure 4.12 Current National
and 9% actually thought it meant “Family Viewing” (Rideout,
TV Ratings System
2007). Finally, the ratings are completely voluntary, and two
studies reveal that producers are not always conscientious about SOURCE: From Kaiser Family Foundation
(2000b). Reprinted with permission.
rating their own programs (Greenberg, Rampoldi-Hnilo, &
Mastro, 2000; Kunkel et al., 1998). Nearly 80% of shows with NOTE: These ratings are voluntary and
self-administered. FV (for fantasy violence)
violence and more than 90% of shows with sex do not receive is rarely used.
the V or S content descriptors (Kunkel et al., 1998) (see Figure
4.14). For example, an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger featured the stabbing of two
guards on a bus, an assault on a church by escaped convicts threatening to rape a
nun, and a fight scene in which one escapee is shot and another is beaten unconscious. It did not receive a V descriptor. In addition, 80% of children’s programs
with violence do not receive the FV descriptor (see Figure 4.15) (Kunkel et al., 1998).
To add to all of this confusion for parents, the gaming industry began by using
two different systems, one for video games and the other for computer games.
The former won out, but it bears little resemblance to the movie and TV ratings
systems (Gentile et al., 2005): a new EC rating (ages 3 and older), E (everyone), a
new E 10+ rating (everyone 10 and older), T (teen), M (mature), and AO (adults
only) (see Figure 4.16). A recent study of the Entertainment Software Rating
Board (ESRB) ratings found that more than half of all games are rated as containing violence, including more than 90% of games rated as appropriate for children
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Page 136
Figure 4.13
SOURCE: Reprinted with special permission of Universal Press Syndicate.
Table 4.2
Current TV Ratings System
TV-Y (appropriate for all children)
TV Y7 (directed to older children)
FV (fantasy violence—intense violence in children’s programming)
TV-G (general audience)
TV-PG (parental guidance suggested)
V (moderate violence)
S (some sexual situations)
L (infrequent coarse language)
D (some suggestive dialogue)
TV-14 (parents strongly cautioned)
V (intense violence)
S (intense sexual situations)
L (strong coarse language)
D (intensely suggestive dialogue)
TV-MA (mature audiences only)
V (graphic violence)
S (explicit sexual activity)
SOURCE: Hogan (2001). Reprinted with permission.
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Prosocial Effects of Media——137
Average of
2.1 scenes
per show
Average of
4.8 scenes
per show
level and
Low level
Average of
3.9 scenes
per show
Average of
3.9 scenes
per show
level and
Figure 4.14
Percentage of Shows With Sex, Violence, or Adult Language That Did
Not Receive a Content Descriptor
SOURCE: Kunkel et al. (1998). Reprinted with permission.
Percentage of children’s
shows containing
violence . . .
Of children’s shows
containing violence, the
percentage that receive the
content descriptor “FV”
for “fantasy violence”. . .
No “FV”
“FV” Rating
Figure 4.15
Percentage of Children’s Shows Containing Violence
SOURCE: Kunkel et al. (1998). Reprinted with permission.
Figure 4.16
Original Video Game Ratings
SOURCE: ©2006 Entertainment Software Association. All rights reserved. The ESRB rating icons
are registered trademarks of the Entertainment Software Association.
NOTE: Now “E” (for “Everyone”) and “E10+” categories have been added.
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Page 138
10 years and older (Gentile, 2008). Finally, the music industry uses a single rating
system, “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics.” It, too, is voluntary and does not
distinguish among lyrics that are explicitly violent, sexual, or profane (Federman,
All of these disparate systems rely on the integrity, honesty, and judgment of the
producers of the program, except for the MPAA system, which has an independent
board, composed of parents, that confers the rating. However, even then, the independence of the board is sometimes questionable, and the lack of expert membership is often apparent (Federman, 1996; Waxman, 2001a, 2001b). These separate
and noncompatible systems have been developed with very little input from the
public, the medical community, or the academic community (Gentile et al., 2005).
One recent “test” of the ratings systems found that parents frequently disagree with
the industry about the ratings applied to different media, particularly when violent
content is involved. Only half of parents surveyed agreed with the G rating given to
popular movies, and more than a third disagreed with PG ratings (see Table 4.3)
(Walsh & Gentile, 2001).
The solution here should be readily apparent: a single, uniform, content-based
ratings system that could be applied to all media that children and teenagers use
(Gentile et al., 2005; Greenberg & Rampoldi-Hnilo, 2001; Hogan, 2001). The current “alphabet soup” of ratings systems is too confusing for parents to learn and
apply and is even difficult for researchers to study (Greenberg et al., 2000). In addition, the voluntary nature of the current ratings systems is too easy for producers
to exploit. The temptations are ever present to downcode a product to capture a
larger audience (or, ironically, upcode it) or to depict increasingly edgy sexual,
violent, or drug-taking behavior (Gentile et al., 2005). An external ratings board,
with representation from the various industries, along with parents, health professionals, and academics, would put the United States on par with many other
Western countries (Federman, 1996). In addition, such a move would inevitably
lead to a societal discussion of cultural values: What should we rate most heavily
against? How do we define quality and educational? That, in itself, would be useful.
Table 4.3
Should This Movie Have Been Rated PG? (no, according to many
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
Charlie’s Angels
Little Nicky
Nutty Professor II: The Klumps
She’s All That
The Wedding Singer
SOURCE: Walsh and Gentile (2001).
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Prosocial Effects of Media——139
1. Where do you draw the line between prosocial messages and what George
Orwell described as “mind control” in his novel, 1984? For example, most people
agree that, in general, war is bad. Should primetime shows contain messages about
the recent war in Iraq, or would that be “crossing the line”? Should children’s shows
such as Sesame Street contain antiwar messages? Messages about terrorism? Where
do you draw the line between public health and moralizing?
2. Imagine a version of Sesame Street designed and produced by (a) the Chinese
government, (b) Al-Jazeera TV, (c) the former Soviet Union, and (d) the state of
California. Who would the main characters be? What would some of the main
themes be? Try watching The World According to Sesame Street, a documentary
where co-productions from China, Israel/Palestine, and Russia are shown. Are
there differences between these shows and the American version?
3. As regular viewers of The Simpsons know, The Itchy & Scratchy Show is a parody of violent children’s cartoons. Like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, Itchy
and Scratchy do little more than pummel each other constantly. After Marge writes a
letter to the producer of the show, however, the tone becomes much more prosocial—
and dull. Kids began turning off their TV sets and heading outdoors. Can prosocial
programming be entertaining as well as educational? Or do most prosocial shows
come off sounding like they’ve been directed and produced by a consortium of religious organizations?
4. Should shows and entertainment acts that are antisocial be banned? In 2006,
an infamous videophone clip posted on the Internet showed Michael Richards, of
Kramer and Seinfeld fame, in Los Angeles’ Comedy Club repeatedly using the “n”
word (Heffernan, 2006). Does he have the right to use whatever language he wants
in his act? Richard Pryor repeatedly used the “n” word in his stand-up routines, to
very powerful effect. Can only African Americans use the word? Conversely, should
the White supremacist teenage twins, Prussian Blue, be censored? They call nonWhites “muds,” play a video game called Ethnic Cleansing, and sing songs that
glorify the Third Reich. A feature story about Prussian Blue in the magazine Teen
People was recently killed by parent company Time Inc. (Hammond & Dillon, 2005).
If you are in favor of censorship—for whatever reason—who decides what should be
censored? Should prosocial media explicitly deal with issues of diversity and racism?
5. The MPAA recently announced that it would allow filmmakers to appeal ratings based on what other films had been rated in the past (Halbfinger, 2007). This
move came after the success of the movie, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which is
extremely critical of the MPAA. Should the MPAA ratings members be kept secret
from the public? Should ratings be a negotiation between the MPAA and the filmmaker? What about the recent MPAA decision to consider scenes of smoking in
movies in determining the rating (MPAA, 2007, May 10)? Do you think the MPAA
will follow through on its decision? What improvements could be made to the
current ratings system?
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Page 140
Figure 4.17
Examples of Two Opposing Public Health-Related Media Campaigns
SOURCE: ©2008 The National Rifle Association and Ceasefire, School of Public Health.
6. Public health campaigns can be “pro” or “con” on certain issues, such as
firearms. Look at the two opposing ads in Figure 4.17. Which ad do you think is
more effective? What emotions are the ads trying to elicit? A 2008 study found that
TV stations donate an average of 17 seconds an hour to PSAs, usually broadcasting
them between midnight and 6 a.m. (Gantz, Schwartz, Angelini, & Rideout, 2008).
Is this acceptable? If not, how could stations be encouraged to show more PSAs at
popular viewing times?
7. Why do you think parents take young children to see violent movies that are
rated PG-13 or R and are clearly inappropriate for them? Is it because they cannot
afford a babysitter? Or is it because they think such movies are harmless or will not
affect their children? Should movie theaters bar young children from seeing such
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